Dining Out: Ooh La Voile
A gimmick-free French restaurant serving classics cooked with heart and skill by a French-to-the-marrow chef: If it sounds unlikely, that’s probably because the many bistros and brasseries that have opened here lately have been so utterly formulaic. But La Voile isn’t a stunt—it’s authentic, grownup dining, with just a dash of formality (because, well, it is French).
We’re lucky that La Voile—which means “The Sail”—berthed here. It arrived from Cannes, where the original had become the favorite hangout of a Swiss-American sailing enthusiast named Pierre Honegger. He suggested to owner Stephane Santos and his fiancée, Stephanie Zuberbuehler, that they open a U.S. branch. Instead, they opted for full-scale relocation, selling their restaurant to try their luck in the States. And so to Boston they came (it seemed less formidable than New York), bringing their chef, Sam Boussetta.
They settled on upper Newbury Street, province of well-heeled visitors and Euro college students, who make a natural customer base. The area scarcely has a neighborhood vibe (let alone enough parking), and the restaurant’s semibasement space—outfitted with dark wood and nautical motifs, and French poetry stenciled along the top of the walls like a frieze—is a bit gloomy for a place serving sunny flavors. The location has hardly deterred the crowds, though: Even on freezing-cold weeknights a few months after it opened in late October, La Voile was packed, leaving the debonair manager (who gives his name to the press as just “Philippe”) and Santos scrambling to keep up with diners angling for a table.
During various dinners throughout January, service was still a bit chancy, with long waits between courses and wild gesturing required to get the harried staff’s attention. A few of the main courses were worth the delays (and pantomiming), including one boldly called roast chicken L’Ami Louis—an homage to only the most famous, and expensive, roast chicken in Paris. Dare I say it’s as good as I remember its namesake being? Santos knows the secret: slathering the meat with goose fat (pretty much everything at L’Ami Louis is bathed in the stuff) before it goes into the oven. His chicken is free-range and, equally important, has been air-dried rather than plunged into a chlorine bath right after slaughter, which dilutes flavor. That goose fat works to succulent effect, producing a golden jus with the right thinnish consistency and glossy sheen. At $20, this plump half bird is a terrific bargain.
I need regular access to that chicken, as well as to the blanquette de veau ($22, another bargain), the most common French veal stew. You’ve made Julia Child’s, right? Just mushrooms, pearl onions, carrots, and little pieces of veal in a cream sauce with lemon. Boussetta’s begins with his excellent stocks; those fonds, and the bright lemon, made me rediscover a very good (if politically incorrect) dish. It comes to the table in a covered cast-iron pot that the waiter lifts in front of your nose so the fragrance hits, and is served, comme il faut, over rice pilaf. More than any other offering here, the stew made me realize how much I’d missed authentic, French-made French food (well, one dessert did, too, but I’ll get to that).
The entrées are stronger than the first courses, some of which have a routine, I-know-how-to-make-this-it-bores-me air (as was the case with a ho-hum endive salad with apples, walnuts, and Roquefort, $11). The homemade terrines, including rabbit and pistachio ($13) and country pâté ($13), had nice chunks of meat and fat but were low in flavor. Santos will travel far to find what he wants—the sausages for an excellent choucroute Alsacienne ($29) come from no less than Schaller & Weber, the renowned German butcher in New York—and he told me he was desperately searching for the most necessary ingredient, pig throat. (I suggested Chinatown.) Maybe that will solve the problem, but the pâtés shouldn’t have been served cold and hard, or with dry edges. Two big-deal Provençal emblems, soupe de poisson ($14) and bouillabaisse ($35), were also big letdowns—the soup wimpy and saltless, and the bouillabaisse lackluster—and not just because New England can’t offer the rockfish that is to bouillabaisse what pig throat is to pâté. The shrimp and mussels were bland, and I wanted to ask for the base to be cooked down by half.
Fish is, in fact, the weakest part of La Voile’s menu, perhaps because Santos hasn’t found sources as good as the ones he has for meat. The sea bass ($34) comes straight from Riviera waters, he told me, and is boned tableside (there’s a lot of that kind of shtick here, much of it dispensable, given the frequently hard-to-find waiters). The big portion was perfectly grilled, but the fish didn’t have much flavor and lacked the potent Provençal wild fennel flavor that the menu promises. No crisp skin, either. Dover sole ($44), an expensive showpiece that few places in Boston offer, was mealy rather than meaty, with a flaccid if golden-brown flour-butter coat. The best seafood I tried was an appetizer: sea scallops ($18) sliced horizontally (French economy) and pan-seared until the edges were nicely black, deglazed with cider vinegar, and prettily arranged over fresh arugula and spinach.
With meat, by contrast, the cooks seem unable to take a false step. A first course of foie gras steamed in a big leaf of savoy cabbage ($20) was a new way to understand that delicacy, the lightly crunchy cabbage wrapper protecting and highlighting the meat’s subtle firmness. Santos told me he swiped the recipe from Alain Senderens—in whose legendary Paris restaurant Lucas Carton he once worked—but that he’d probably drop it for the ever popular sautéed foie gras. (He since has.) The sliced filet mignon, $31 and worth it, was tender yet full of steak flavor (as filet mignon practically never is), perhaps because, despite what the menu says, it’s not grilled but sautéed whole, the way French cooks make steak. The lamb shank ($23) was braised until it fell apart in a wine-tomato sauce scented with the fresh herbes de Provence La Voile regularly receives courtesy of UPS. It was unapologetically, authoritatively lamby. And another dish that’s a great bargain.
With luck, by the time you get to La Voile, its pastry chef will be in place, a necessary addition. Santos told me his Parisian hire was waiting for a visa, which likely explained why the apple tart ($7) and raspberry mille-feuille ($8) were soggy and flavorless. But the puddings were quite satisfying, particularly a delicate rice pudding with a foamy top reminiscent of riz à l’impératrice ($7), and a very good crème brûlée ($7). And then there was the stellar île flottante ($7) to which I alluded earlier, a “floating island” of milk-poached meringue drizzled with caramel, topped with toasted flaked almonds, and served over a light, vanilla-scented crème anglaise. Ile flottante, like blanquette de veau, is French comfort food that everyone forgets about, and few people get right. La Voile gets it right.
La Voile, 261 Newbury St., Boston, 617-587-4200.
Appetizer: Seared sea scallops ($18)
Entrées: Sliced filet mignon ($31); choucroute Alsacienne ($29); lamb shank in wine-tomato sauce ($23); blanquette de veau ($22); roast chicken L’Ami Louis ($20)
Desserts: Ile flottante ($7); rice pudding ($7); crème brûlée ($7)